Stereophile confirms new gear is getting worse....

It appears that "high end" audio gear is moving backwards rather than forwards. If you doubt this, take a look at the November 2003 issue and the test results of the electronics reviewed.

As a case in point, the Pass XA160 mono-block amps that were reviewed perform pretty horribly. While most folks that read these forums know that i'm not shy about being a fan of Nelson Pass' work, i don't have much good to say about these over-priced boat anchors. Most will probably remember what a hard time that i gave the PS Audio HCA-2. In effect, most of the comments that i made about that amp apply to this amp. From what i can tell, the comments that i made about the PS may not be strong enough as compared to how poorly the XA160's performed, especially at the price. Lack of current output, high distortion figures, non-linear frequency responses, the ability for the loudspeaker to modulate the output of the amp, etc... were all evident in the test results. To top it off, the input and output impedances will make this unit quite sensitive to the components ( preamp, speakers, etc...) that it is mated with.

Regardless of who's name is on this unit, how "pretty" it looks ( gorgeous ), what it weighs (200 lbs per monoblock) and the parts quality inside, quite honestly, this unit performed like a really crappy "vintage" ( read that as "low tech" ) tubed unit from the days prior to audio civilization. All this "eye candy" and a sore back for only $18K a pair !!!

As we move to the next product review, we look at the BAT VK-51SE. While this unit was more consistent than the Pass, some of the design choices made are obviously not good ones. The most obvious flaw that i see with this unit is that it changes sound / tonal balance as the volume is varied. Even when the gain control is adjusted for the flattest response, the top end starts sloping off gradually above 5 KHz. As you increase the gain, you now introduce low frequency roll-off into the equation also. If really standing on the throttle, the unit doesn't even make it down to 100 Hz within a -3 dB tolerance window !!! Obviously, this is not very good or linear and is poorer performance than one would expect out of a "reasonable" pair of speakers, NOT line level components !!!

As such, you can't expect consistent sonics from this unit unless you listen at one gain setting. If you have only one source component and all your recordings are of the same intensity, you "might" be able to find a reasonable setting. Since i highly doubt that this is the case, especially the part about consistent volume from recording to recording, you can pretty much count this out.

On top of the variations that this unit produces on its' own, one can introduce a whole new gang of variables into the equation once you start factoring in input / output impedances into the equation. I'll just say that this unit isn't going to be very versatile in terms of what components it mates up with in terms of amp selection. All this "high tech performance" for only $8500. Make that $9000 if you want the convenience of a remote.

Moving a few pages further, we run into the "giant killer" AH! Njoe Tjoeb ( pronounced "new tube" ) 4000 cd player. This is a highly modified / hot-rodded Marantz unit with tubes added, a "super clock" and the option of a "plug & play" upsampling board, fancy footers and an upgraded power cord. Depending on what you want to spend, the base unit is $700. If you go for the unit fully loaded with options, you can feel your bank account drained to the tune of about $1200.

Take one look at the frequency response of this unit and you'll see that it is far from "neutral". To top it off, distortions are higher along with a lack of suppression of AC harmonics. Jitter is pretty high for a unit with a "superclock" i.e. higher than other units i've seen with no "superclock". As such, this unit doesn't appear to be a "killer" of any type other than being able to "flatten your wallet in one swift motion".

Obviously, "high end" has come full circle. That is, it would appear that "audiophiles" are more concerned with asthaetics and reputation than actual performance and fidelity. The folks that used to laugh at Bang & Olufsen are now falling for looks at an even higher price. While the sonics may differ from Bang & Olufsen, the end result is that none of these units are "accurate" or capable of being called "high fidelity" units any more than Bang & Olufsen gear of yester-year was. The fact that B&O are now trying to jump back into "high end" with some truly innovative products just goes to show that one can't judge a company or product by its' cover any more.

Having said that, the above mentioned products can't really be called "Hi-Fi components". What they can be called are "flavoured audiophile toys". The funny thing is that J. Gordon Holt had commented on this type of situation arising within the industry and there are letters in this issue agreeing with that point of view. J. Peter Moncrieff also talked about that in IAR Hotline 76-80 quite a while back and found it rather pathetic. Count me in with that crowd too.

I do have to credit JA and the guys for having the guts to print these test results. While there is plenty of "dancing" in all of the reviews along with more than enough "gushing" ( the Pass review in specific ), it was pretty obvious that JA really DID make mention of the technical problems that each of these products displayed. As usual, Stereophile remains consistent in the fact that they continue to test, measure and display the results for all to see. For this, i offer a very hardy pat on the back, vigorous hand-clapping and whistling. THANK YOU from all of us that like reading and interpreting spec's for ourselves. Having said that, JA still tried to down-play these flaws somewhat by giving the "old soft shoe" at the end of his technical comments.

As i've said before, one has to buy and use what they like and makes them happy. With all of the various and BLATANT "flavouring" that is going on with audio gear nowadays, one really must know what they want and how well components will blend together in their system. It would appear that the days of trying to achieve "accuracy" and "musicality" with with each piece of gear are over. Now audio is kind of like Baskin-Robbins i.e. you've got to know what you like before you order what are VERY specific "flavours" for each product selected.

Let the buyer beware.... Sean

PS... I've got my flame repellent armour on along with an oxygen tank and a full battery of weapons. After this post and the responses that i think i'll get, i know that i'll need all of that and maybe more : )
Sean, no need to put the armour on (A Brit are ya?), no flames from me on this topic and I reflect most of your sentiments. And I like it when someone has the courage to put a stake in the ground and stand by it. Kudos to you.

Buyer Beware is front and center for any major outlay of resources. In my opinion there is absolutely NO EXCUSE for releasing-for-sale products of poor measured performance in ANY component in this day and age, unless of course it's done strictly for reasons of greed (flames here). I don't really care how damn good the thing is supposed to BE esoterically or how "sweet" it sounds under certain EXCEPTIONAL and unrealistic situations e.g. with certain music styles only or with interconnects/speaker cables that prevent the damn thing from going into runaway oscillation, or with extremely sensitive speakers (90+dB) at 10 OHms and above, it's got to measure well. Also, input and output impedances should be realistically designed to meet the needs of the real world in terms of electrical compatibility, unless that manufacturer is also prepared to provide all the components necessary for an "exceptional configuration."

I uphold the school that states that measured performance does indeed correlate to system performance, intercomponent compatibility and long term listening pleasure.

Why anyone would want anything other than pure neutrality in a music playback system, and let the flavoring occur via the music selected for listening alone, is beyond me (flames here). But then that's my view.

If such manufacturers want to make gear that would have intercomponent measurement anomalies, then they should make all-in-one credenzas like the stereos of the 60s that they have all the source components, pres, amps and speaker configurations in one unit. This way we can't see the wierd stuff going on between the electronics and all the user has to "worry" about is how it sounds and what he she puts in/on the CD/LP/Tuner etc and where the 117 VAC in the wall is.

Kind of like Bose Wave system.

Otherwise if it HAS inputs and outputs, make it measure, interact well with, and "play ball with the rest of the kids in the playground."

In the end we must ask how long manufacturers of gear with poor measured performance actually last in the modern high end industry.

Can I borrow your flame repellent armour and O2 tank, I think I'm gonna need it. (Perhaps a review of such speacialized gear is in order too under a separate thread.) ;-0
Sean, your only beginning to scratch the surface.......... no need to worry about your armour, the truth is your greatest weapon.
So what gear should we buy?
Sean: Although I think you know that I would not buy a piece of gear based on specs, and I am sure you wouldn't either, I do want to join you in commending Stereophile for being just about last man standing when it comes to publishing original test results. In fact, I think they should expand the practice: Test the gear written up in the columns, not just the reviews; Add more speaker tests to help quantify dynamic and frequency response vs. distortion + noise; And like JA finally got around to doing this month - but seemingly only because it involved his beloved LP12 - start including measurements when it comes to analog gear. Measurements are a useful check on both gear quality and reviewer accuity.

Having said that though, I haven't got any problems with the specs of any of the pieces mentioned. My only problem with the Pass amp, for instance, is if the true measurements deviate greatly from the manufacturer's claimed measurements - which it seems as though they might - but not with the unit's measured capabilities per se. Yes, it does seem faintly ridiculous to me that an amp the XA160's size, weight, type, and price shouldn't offer more output grunt and linearity, but I don't think you can extrapolate from that into some kind of accelerating trend toward a 'personalized fidelity' paradigm within the industry. And complaining about output impedance in an amp with no global feedback seems a little disingenuous to me. Maybe something was sub-optimal with the test sample anyway, and I'll withold judgement (on this narrow issue) until Pass responds in the magazine.

As for the BAT preamp, it would have been nice had JA included a measurement of its response somewhere in between unity gain and max output. Absent that, I have to infer from his comments that the measured behavior really did not bother him, and that he really did think this piece was well-engineered for use within normal operating parameters. That there might be some slight change in the location of the upper -.5dB point (into average loads) dependent on volume setting does not, to me, seem to be all that unusual, or to disqualify a piece from consideration as a high fidelity instrument. In fact, it seems quite possible to me that such a volume control might well be engineered to deliver superior transparency through the heart of the volume range - no doubt what BAT would contend. And again, I'm not sure what you're driving at with remarks about I/O impedances - the BAT's input impedance was unmeasurably high, and the output impedance seems reasonable for an all-tube design that eschews cathode-followers, and will work fine with plenty of amps.

With the AH! CD player, you're probably right, it certainly does appear as if the response has been slightly tailored to yield a small dip through the 'brightness' range. But hey, customers interested in a heavily modded, tubed version of a mass-market player might find this attractive. And though the rest of the results may not have been stellar, they were all OK, and they're probably of no audible consequence or any great sin at this price.

More to the point, neither you nor I have heard these pieces - the reviewers did. And again, I can see no real basis, just from this anecdotal evidence, to back up your assertion that 'new gear is getting worse' in general.
CLAMPS: Considering wise-ass remarks on your previous answers, i would suggest you to continue buying what Stereophile tells you to!
You should get the Bugstomper 4000! Enough said.

IMHO, anyone who pays $18,000 for an audio amplifier deserves what he gets. This is not rocket science.
What happened to listening to stuff and making your own choices. The magazines are purely for brand awarenss and entertainment. The reality of it is there is more quality hifi now in all price points than ever. And the choices for vinyl have never been greater. Sure there is overpriced crap out there but you cannot generalize about the state of the hobby. And the laws of diminishing returns still stand. Overall the stuff sounds better today and keeps getting better.
In the midst of all this verbiage I see nothing mentioned about what this gear sounds like. I thought the idea was to have a system that recreates music in your home. Something that might make you happy. I don't know about you but I don't actually listen to specifications. In fact it has been my experience over 35 years involved in audio that as far as amps go: THE BETTER THE SPECS THE WORSE THE SOUND! If our buying decisions were made according to specs there would be no high end or audiophiles. After all, the stuff they sell at Best Buy has great specs so I guess we should just be happy with it and not strive for better sound. Don't get me wrong, I believe that you should get value for your money spent, and there are as many things that can determine that as there are differing opinions among purchasers. For me the specs are the very least important factor involved, so far as to be irrelevent in my decision whether to buy a particular piece of gear. If it puts me in touch with the music and moves my soul, now thats something important.
Z: While many of your technical comments are quite valid, the fact that these units show marked deviation in any form is testimony in itself that products aren't being designed for neutrality or accuracy. As such, they should no longer be referred to as "hi-fi components" but. They are being built to suit the tastes / colouration preferences of those most likely to buy them.

If such were not the case, the great resurgence in tube gear would not be happening. Anybody that has ever seen the test results of "most" commercially available tube gear would know that these units are far from accurate, linear or "transparent". I know that i'm stepping on a lot of toes here, but if tubes didn't have these "sonic traits", they wouldn't be so discernable from SS gear.

While there are a handful of tube manufacturers that strive to achieve high levels of accuracy and musicality, they are the exception and not the norm. The fact that SS and hybrid tube / ss gear is taking the same approach should tell you that the products we are seeing are strictly market driven. They have little to nothing to do with technological advances or the desire to reproduce recordings in a naturally transparent manner.

As far as the Pass gear goes in specific, i hate seeing something like this. Not only does the manufacturer misrepresent the product in terms of basic specs, the product tests like crap. While i'm a big fan of Nelson's work, this thing is just plain horrible in a technical sense. The fact that the faceplate on this thing cost more to manufacture than what some amps cost to build really shows where their priorities are.

As to the BAT preamp, if they can't provide reasonable linearity across the bandwidth that isn't volume dependent for $8K, maybe they should have spent another $100 in product development and better parts selection. One could logically deduce that the frequency response of the unit would shift accordingly between the response measured at full gain and minimal gain, but even that would require some form of linearity. Utterly ridiculous to say the least.

As to the Njoe Tjoeb, your comment stating "probably of no audible consequence or any great sin at this price" is pretty heavy handed and "snooty" to say the least. While i know that you don't have your nose stuck in the air, that comment would lead one to believe that $850 - $1200 should be considered a pittance and that one can't buy something at least technically decent for this price. I guess the fact that they can make self contained portable "discman" type units that also contain an amplifier and market them for $39 with the manufacturer, distributor and retailer all making a profit means nothing.

Not to beat a dead horse, but we've already covered how poorly the PS HCA-2 performed. Just to refresh our memories, that was ranked a "Class A" component. If something that performs that poorly can make it into Class A, what does that say about the rest of the competition ? The only logical deduction here is that the quality of components IS getting worse and the reviewers are lowering their standards to compensate for it. Other than that, i can only think of one other reason how such products could obtain positive reviews.

I guess we had nothing to complain about while Stereophile was "loving" all the MF gear. Hell, at least that stuff was designed relatively competently and didn't cost near as much. Sean

PS... Thanks to those that offered words of support. It's always nice to know that you're not alone : )

Infinitebaffle: You are listening to the spec's whether you think you are or not. If the spec's you're looking at don't correlate with the sound that you're hearing, the spec's were either obtained in an incorrect manner, the circuitry was poorly designed and compensated for in a manner that is less than musical or the manufacturer is lying about them. It is either one of the above or you prefer specific sonic characteristics that don't equate to what most would consider to be "good" measurements. Then again, most of the measurements that one needs to discern if a product is well designed / will sound "acceptable" aren't published by manufacturers in a usable manner. THAT is why i'm thankful that Stereophile still tests and publishes in the manner that they do. Sean
If the specs don't correlate with the sound you're hearing you probably are just measuring the wrong things. Which seems to me to be the situation most of the time. Human hearing is quite subtle and to think that we can measure every nuance that the ear can discern seems technocentric at best. But ears too are non linear as hearing tests will easily show, at least where freqency response is concerned. These deviations from linearity seem to be greater than any currently measured in gear - even many speakers are more linear than the human ear. My experience bears this out. I do think that gear is getting better, it's just the prices that are deafening.
What gear to buy? Go to AudioCircle's manufacturer's circle and you'll find more than a few smaller companies that are for the music. At the top of my list are Channel Islands Audio and now Modwright is producing gear. Dusty's approach is to deliver $30k sound for an investment of $6K. That's what I'm aimimng for, too.
But Sean...

OK, you've got me on the price of the CD player. I should have said that its specs were nothing to get upset about at any price.

I'm not being cute when I say that. Outside of its quite mild frequency response deviations, I wouldn't be shocked if Stereophile's published specs on that unit don't actually constitute an overriding determinant which correlates well with its perceived sound quality. And that response deviation is of a subjectively not-undesirable character when looked at from the standpoint of the mastered sound of many disks, and will in any case likely be swamped by the non-linearities present in the speaker/room response.

But basically, I actually agree with you that this type of euphonic tailoring is not admirable, and that reviewers often seem to go in for components that make average recordings sound 'nice', rather than revealing what's truly there. But I can also understand why others might enjoy this kind of design - after all, music listening is about personal pleasure, and who am I to argue with the preferences of another?

The real core of my argument is not that the AH! player's specs are worthy of a spirited defense, but rather that its *sound* (whatever that may be) is worthy of being judged - as is the sound of any component - primarily against the *sound* of other players in its price range. I probably wouldn't choose this player, because like you I happen to care a bit about uneditorialized frequency response, but that doesn't mean that the unit might not excell in some other parameters at its price point. I don't know however, and neither do you, 'cause we haven't heard it.

Your position in the last sentence of your second paragraph makes it clear that you consider competently-measuring SS gear to constitute some kind of standard of 'neutrality'. But not all 'neutrality' is created equal. I'm sure you don't require a lecture from me on the differences between steady-state test measurements and far more complex music signals.

So there's the 'neutrality' of maintaining flat amplitude response into varying speaker loads by designing for low amplifier output impedance, and then there's another 'neutrality' of designing for lowest TIMD and timing errors by eliminating the global feedback that enables SS amps to appear more linear under static test conditions.

I am not one to propone that what audiophiles hear can never be measured - I do believe that for any audible effect, there exists some discoverable technical property that can be correlated with what the ear perceives. That's in theory only though. In life our measurements are imperfect in design and execution, and the real music problem too complex for current measurement practice to shed the degree of light that would be required for correlative certainty regarding all audible phenomena.

On top of which, I still think this month's issue of Stereophile in no way 'proves' your contention that the overall direction of the industry is heading toward increasingly non-linear devices. That would be a false sylogism - an unscientific supposition, in other words, for which both the evidence and the reasoning are flawed.

I'm particularly surprised that you don't give Nelson Pass, a designer you've often stated your admiration for, more of the benefit of the doubt regarding this new amp. I'm not saying I know he's 'innocent' - again, neither you nor I have heard the thing - but I would be inclined to assume that he hears something positive about the fidelity of this design approach that he couldn't attain through his previous designs, at least until conclusively demonstrated otherwise. And again: even if you or I didn't like it, why care? All that matters in the end is that whoever buys it likes it. It's a big enough market for different interpretations of reality (and that's all we've got) to flourish without doing harm to one another. IMO.
Amen Sean!
Marketing has gotten out of hand. If a company brings a new product update out every 6 months, I've got to question the original design. I've noticed a lot of tested specs are worse than they have been in the past. Look at some of the newer CD players performance---especially jitter.
Consumers electonics have not advanced as far as manufactures would like you to believe. A lot of it is simply rehashing of old designs, especially in tube design.
I was talking to Art Ferris of Audible Illusions the other day and he was telling me how good David Haflers old PAS-3 preamp was(especially the phono section) He made the comment how basic tube design had not changed (parts quality and precision had improved.) Also, there have been some advances in power supply thinking. He took a design in his Modulus preamps and has stuck with it for a long while. Art is a very approachable and knowledgable guy.
I have always felt tubes were coloured in an euphoric way. They kind of mask some of the sources we use and make them more tolerated.
I have always felt the CD was at the root of a lot of problems. We try to mask its inherent faults. Analogue and SACD sure offer a more communicative source.
But, as long as "Audiophiles" continue to buy the latest and greatest, industry will stay the course. It's not to advance the art, it's to make money! And it will stay that way until we demand better from them by refusing to pay absorbent prices for crap!
Sean, Perhaps I did not make my point clear. There is no clear correlation between a products specs and the way it makes music in a system and therefore the specs are totally irrelevent as to the value of that product. Some of the worst measuring pieces of gear are also some of the most musical sounding and most beloved by music lovers. If you choose your gear by it's measurements, more power to you, but many people prefer to make that decision by selecting gear that puts them emotionally in touch with the music and the specs are simply not part of that decision. When I first got into audio I had an opinion similar to yours. It was only when I decided to basically completely ignore specs and just listen that I arrived at a position of having a music reproduction system that really puts me in touch with the music.

First question: Did they do the tests after burn-in?
Second Question: How about actually listening instead of testing?

Case in point: Ah! CD Player. I actually tested the player side-by-side with other players IN MY OWN HOME. It was hands-down the winner against others in it's price (even those higher than it's price). It did take about 80 hours of burn-in but then there was no comparison. So, so much for test specs.

Third question: Does anyone on this site (in particular) actually give any credence to Stereophile Magazine???
We audiophiles regard specs as being (or should be) related to sonic characteristics. But this is not the primary purpose of specs.

A product is tested and the test results are compared with specs so as to verify that the particular unit does not have defective parts or improper assembly. In other words, "does this unit look like all the others". What it looks like is another issue. The sonic characteristics are determined by the design of the circuitry, and a design that sounds "good" may have some parameters that deviate from the ideal.

That said, there are some parameters of audio equipment which do relate to sonic characteristics, frequency response and distortion are the most obvious. If you intend to make a circuit that processes the audio signal with "Fidelity" distortion is ideally zero and frequency response is broad and flat. If you intend to make a nice sounding circuit, you may want to shape the frequency response and generate some nice harmonics. However, if you do the latter, you are designing a musical instrument, not a high fidelity amplifier.
Well, I guess I am late to this thread, but would still like to add my 2 cents.

I have spent a fair amount of time since the spring auditioning loudspeakers. To be truthful, I really didn't need to upgrade those in my second system, but I don't think I have to explain the disease of this hobby to anyone here - we all have it.

In brief, the results of my listening have left me stunned. The vast majority of what I listened to is beyond poor. In no words can I express the disappointment and astonishment I feel. And, I am not talking about johnny come lately brands, but what are considered in many cases to be the vanguard of audio. To be frank, I would never bring most of them into my home, let alone pay $1000 - $4000 for them.

Normally, I have freely listed equipment which I found to offer poor sound, unafraid of the consequences here. I have let the chips fall where they may, and taken whatever flames come my way. However, this time, I wonder if I should really list what I have listened to. Many here that I have a lot of respect own these products. I am now a bit torn internally as to why they would not only buy them, but recommend them.

Perhaps I am being too harsh, but my faults seem miniscule in comparison to established audiophile magazines recommending some of these loudspeakers with the enthusiasm they do. If I read that these speakers come close to the holy grail of high end audio - ACTUAL MUSIC - I am left with the impression that we are either being lied to or those recommending these products are far too easily convinced.

All loudspeakers have faults. None are perfect, and perhaps none will ever be perfect. But, I do feel we have come to the point where book matched veneers on a pretty package are superceding good sound.

I am really angry with multimillion dollar companies who have been in this business for many years producing ill designed ported loudspeakers. Surely, it isn't so hard to produce low frequencies which do not chuff, woof, spit, fart, or whatever you refer to it as.

We all know that it may be difficult for us to come up with a well designed ported alignment, but a company which has generated millions upon millions of dollars of revenue can do it. It just takes a bit of R & D and critical listening. Are these companies simply taking an off the shelf cardboard or plastic tube, inserting into the cabinet, and proclaiming the speaker to be state of the art?

So many speakers have floored me with inadequacies from wooly bass to lack of image focus that I wonder what is going on.

As such, it comes as not such as big surprise that Sean is saying what he is saying. I don't go around measuring things, but if these products measure well then it would be a surprise. And if they in fact do, we need to come up with a new means of measurement. We need to begin demanding that sound win out over looks and boutique price tags!
Good post. It invites stimulated , diverse opinions and has stayed civil. Its why I continue to visit this site daily. Kudos for having the nerve to invite such wrath . I would like to see a special dedicated forum on a weekly basis between any given two AG vets such as Sean and Zaikesman or say albertporter and tok20000 just to name a couple that display spirited and constructive debate about a particular subject the two disagree on. Occasionally these posts become mini think tank extrapolations of often misunderstood audio principles. I personally would pay to see these " clash of the audio titans" .
Sean, I disagree that components are getting worse, but I totally agree that many high end components are actually expensive sonically flavored toys. There has never been a greater number of well built, good sounding, reasonably priced components as there is now. Unfortunately, sonic accuracy seems to be taking a beating in higher end products. People are seemingly pursuing musicality over strictly accurate reproduction. It's not unusual on Audiogon for accuracy to be used in a perjoritive sense. While a good system should not deconstruct music down to its bare elements, neither sould the pursuit of musicality ignore the fact that components must first accurately reproduce the input signal fed into it. If you divorce audio reproduction from accuracy you end up with audiophile systems that are put together to simply make one's records sound "good". Sounding good and being accurate should be the goals of true music loving audiophiles.
I think a couple of issues about specs hasn't been properly addressed. Are the specs produced from proper testing procedure? Lets give them the benefit of the doubt even though I've always had trouble with Stereophiles quite frank admission about room anomolies, microphone placement issues and speaker measurments that consistently seemed to produce like errors. It seems as though many have taken a leap of faith that the specs and their deviation from what might be considered standard expectations were designed in. Is it possible that there might just be a bigger issue with quality control in the high end? I suspect that it might be a lot of both.
I also think it would be interesting for a manufacturer to step forward bravely and allow JA or others to test a piece of equipment, say 10 of 100 that were built, and those 10 represent the beginning, middle and end of the build run. Then plot the findings as a statistical analysis showing the standard deviation within the build run. That way we would get to see what variations can occur between units built to a particular spec. It would be a huge risk to agree to but could also be an important reward for such a participating manufacturer. So many times in Stereophile we have seen the review sample returned to the manufacturer for "problems" and a replacement sent back that was analysed and listened to that sounded and spec'd better.
Onhwy61 makes what I suspect is a very valid point about evolving audiophile perceptions regarding the desirability of 'accuracy'. It is of course not a new observation, and whether it's one that is causally, or only tangetially, related to the point of Sean's original post is open to debate. But I don't want to come across, with my above statements supporting individual preference and the marketplace, as seeming to be totally cavalier about this legitimate issue.

I would generally support the contention that during hi-fi's 'golden age' - despite the state of the art then not being as 'accurate' as is possible today (yeah I know, some would argue that point...) - the *goal* of achieving literal 'high fidelity' to the signal encoded on the recording medium was more enthusiastically embraced by the audio community as being the Platonic ideal the hobby ultimately aspired to. Today, it does sometimes seem that such an ideal is currently regarded, by at least a sizeable proportion of self-described audiophiles, as being distinctly subordinate - if not outright antithetical - to the goal of pursuing the 'Absolute Sound'.

Although I'm all for the recreation of the 'Absolute Sound' as our overarching dream for in-home music reproduction, it is alas an essentially impossible one. As I see it, the problem in attempting to simulate such a perception through the introduction of deliberate non-linearities into the replay system is that such an approach devalues and is often in direct conflict with the necessary (and uncontrollable by the listener) imperatives represented by the signal that is recorded on the software. To me, we *should* be pretty much completely dependent on the recording and software to capture and encode that 'Absolute Sound', and call upon the replay system only to try and transmit that as best we can. But by the same token, it is hard to argue with the position that our replay systems will *always* be non-linear - and in significantly arbitrary fashion (and the same goes for recording systems) - so *why not* attempt to tailor the reproduced sound to render recordings (some, if not all) in the most subjectively pleasing light? After all, isn't this hobby all about personal enjoyment?

Well, yes it is - but: I personally cannot fully enjoy music reproduction that I consider - or the evidence shows (and such evidence could be measured, OR HEARD, and maybe not able to be measured) - to strive for something other than hewing fairly closely to the ideal of 'accurate' reconstruction of the recorded signal. But I realize that's just my preference. I think it's a logical preference, one that I'm most comfortable with, but not one that's shared by all audiophiles. So I'm not going to get upset when gear manufacturers make gear for that segment of our market which has had enough of the pursuit of 'accuracy' and gets more pleasure out of trying create a convincing and pleasing illusion with their systems, even if they know that might deviate from what's strictly on the disk, and despite the problems I myself find with this type of philosophy. In an imperfect world we have to pick our poisons, and if the marketplace didn't naturally dictate that diversity was the right solution, then we wouldn't have the proliferation of firms in this business that we do. I for one can gracefully accept that fact, and still keep my opinions.
since when do audiophile care what Stereophile has to say about audio equipment? least for the past 5 your own years...i've heard systems with equipment that is never mentioned in Stereophile that sounded amazing...and i've heard Stereophile "grade A" equipment that sounded like a Bose radio...what is amazing is that they finally post some negative reviews (from what Sean is saying)...
I, for one, am very supportive of getting the Stereophile speaker test graphs. These graphs can be very useful, for example, in determining if a speaker is truely time and phase accurate. Surely they are not a substitute for listening with your equipment in your listening room, but they can be a helpful source of information to down select from the large number to choose from. Similar thinking can apply to the choice of many components.

Is high end moving backwards? I don't know. I do know that what I was satisfied with years ago doesn't satisfy me today. I'm sure I am a more discriminating listener, so that may be a factor. And you can't go back...
Maybe it's time to admit that many audiophiles do not WANT accurate, high-fidelity gear. Accuracy is boring, not to mention dirt-cheap. Anybody can put together a decent system with an accurate CD player and amp. The challenge comes in trying to put together a decent-sounding system out of components that aren't accurate. That, I suspect, is part of the appeal of tubes and vinyl--they give the audio hobbyist a lot more to do and to think about.

Besides, if you're going to charge $18,000 for a pair of amps, they better sound different! And if cheaper amps are accurate, then different, of necessity, must be inaccurate.
Bomarc: While i can appreciate and somewhat agree with your comments, it appears that you still seem to believe that all amps "load up" or respond the same into every type of conceivable impedance presented by various speakers. Such is not the case. A rudimentary investigation of the facts in this area will turn up more than ample evidence to support this point of view. I guess that i can see how you would believe that passive components are all the same ( wire is wire ) if you were of the belief that all active devices ( amps ) were the same too.

Having said that, i should have worded this post a little more carefully. I shouldn't have said that "all" audio gear is getting worse. I should have said that it appears that some highly regarded products made by reputable manufacturers are specifically deviating from neutrality on purpose. Thanks to those that pointed this out and kept things in balance. I wasn't trying to be controversial, i was just short-sighted in the words and terms that i used. Then again, some of these products appear to be under-designed from the get-go and that is what is causing deviations to manifest themselves in their performance. Sean
Used to own BAT30SE preamp. A/B with ARC preamp before. What I hear actually agrees with Sean's comment, althouth it is 51SE. BAT seem have more mid when play louder, while at low volume bass and high are still there but middle frequency seem fade little bit. ARC did the opposite, they actually have more middle, less bass, when volume is lower.
Maybe either is ideally flat on the spectrum. We do hear the spec sometimes. And who confirms BEST BUY level receivers have better spec than high end?! Since Stereophile does not test them on the real load, so I won't say that those low priced receivers have better spec.
When using simple artificial matched loading, you can easily come up with good numbers. But a real world speaker?! ..........
They make high end priced too high and sometimes unnecessary heavy these days, I totally agree.
They still can't find lighter heat sink today? at 10K priced tag? you are kidding me! No no no excuses!
Yep, indeed. I was surprised by the XA160 too. I read the measurements first, being the EE that I am, and felt disappointed in the new big Pass. Perhaps designers aren't going for good measured performance anymore which I see as a fault. I guess I won't be getting an XA160 next week afterall...LOL! Arthur
Thank you, Sean, for totally misrepresenting what I said and what I believe.
Y'know Sean, I actually had not yet thoroughly read Chip Stern's review of the AH! player when I responded above. But upon reading it carefully, not just skimming, it seems that quite a few of his comments on this unit's sound are not the kind of impressions I had implied I would have expected based on the measured results. To me, this supports one of my main contentions, which is that there's not necessarily a lot that can be directly inferred about the sound of electronic gear from the way it measures, within limits anyway.

Also, rereading the Pass review and tests, I have come to realize that really the only things about this amp that should raise eyebrows, outside of aesthetic and economic factors, are these: 1) the current capability shortfall vs. the claimed spec, and 2) the fact that apparently no caution against pairing it with a low-impedance, low-efficiency speaker - particularly in large rooms or for high volume levels - seems to have been mentioned by Pass. The shortfall in rated output (claimed 160W vs. measured 118W at 1% THD, I believe) is trivial in practical terms (at least for the specified 8 ohm load). And I was wrong above to suggest that the amp might show any linearity problems when operated within its margins. So it's only the 'grunt' question and matters of system-matching that are open to question in my mind (again, size and price notwithstanding, since these are issues that are matters of personal taste and wherewithal, unrelated to sound or engineering quality). Looked at that way, it doesn't sound crazy to me, for the right applications, that an amp featuring only two gain stages, no global feedback, just one pair of output devices, and pure class-A operation should yield only modest power for its size and weight (along with a high-than-normal output impedance). Given an appropriate load (impedance that is relatively high, flat, and non-reactive, coupled with above-average efficiency), such an amp might well sound better in some ways than more conventional designs. (Too bad JA no longer seems to be including the data graphs he once made using the Paul Miller system which showed THD vs. output power at varying loads driven by a more 'music-like' test signal. I wonder where this amp would really begin to hard-clip into 8 ohms - possibly much higher than the 1% point, considering Fremer's audition results which indicated no audible strain). None of the foregoing is meant to excuse Pass' overrating of the peak current capability (a claimed 12A vs. a measured 3.8A), or his coyness about power delivery into 4 ohm loads (not spec'ed, but which he seems to imply - incorrectly - is the same as with 8 ohms), but tubed amps with similar 'limitations' (I'm thinking especially of OTL designs) and similar (or higher) pricing are successfully matched with appropriate speakers. Maybe Pass himself will bring to market a speaker ideally mated to his new amp...
There is a Pass speaker.
I completely agree with Sean's OP. At these price levels, there should be NO excuse for ANY shortfalls in ANY area (specs, sound, finish, you name it.) If a manufacturer decides to mass produce a beta version or a merely adequate DIY project, they should label it (an price it) as such. Or, if that's indeed the best they can come up with, they should not label themselves as manufacturers of Hi-Fi gear, but rather (as noted above) as creators of musical instruments or "electronic art".
That being said, I am a Pass fan/owner; they make good amps and they DO care about their reputation/customers. You can read their (unofficial?) response regarding the issue here
I agree that at these prices, things shouldn't slip through the cracks and not perform as advertised. On the other hand, it seems very obvious that Pass has their customer policy/ relations deptartment in order. Heck, s**t happens, as long as Pass deals with it as promised, I'd let it pass.
If Stereophile says new gear is getting worse, it must be the best gear released in years. As we know everything Stereophile says is wrong, especially when they agree with me.
Aboldor: Your linked post from NP sounds like a good answer for customers, but only in part. He still fails to address the questions I listed above, namely the realistic current-capability and speaker-matching issues. Maybe his "Manufacturer's Response" in the mag will be more expansive. It can inferred however from his words that the company was apparently completely satisfied with the sound of the review samples as-submitted.

Drubin: The Rushmore is an active speaker, with its own built-in amplification.

Sean: Then there's always the XA-200...
Zaikesman, I think you have to cut Pass Labs a little bit of a break on the current capabilities of the amp. Mr. Pass & company have clearly demonstrated that they are capable of producing amps with plenty of current grunt, if they so desire. I suspect with the XA line that they were pursuing something slightly different. Seemingly they've traded some current output for simplicity in design and presumably greater purity in sound. Such a product won't appeal to everyone.

This link will lead to Pass's explanation reguarding the amps in the Stereophile review.

I cut and pasted Pass's response below.


So here's the final poop on the subject. To sum up:

Stereophile reviewed a pair of XA160 amplifiers that are rated at 160 watts per channel into 8 ohms. In spite of what we consider to be a rave review, they did not meet their full power spec. Unfortunately we did not hear about this until after the review. Although their policy is to inform a manufacturer of such a discrepancy, this didn't happen, so it was a bit of a surprise.

When we received the amplifiers back, we did indeed confirm the wattage shortfall, which was due to maladjustment. This was easily corrected, and the amps do indeed measure 160 watts.

How does does something like this happen? Tracing it back, the "sales department" took the amplifiers home for subjective listening and because they were happy, the amps fell through the cracks with regard to bench testing.

Does this alter the "tone" of the review with regard to the sound? I think only to the extent that they possibly sound a bit better. Then again, maybe not.

Do owners have a reason for concern? Not particularly. First, there could only be a few such units out there at most. Second, such a maladjustment does not have an effect on reliability and only a slight effect on the sound.

A U.S. customer concerned that his XA160's might not meet spec can arrange to have the units examined at the factory and readjusted if necessary without cost, and Pass Labs will pay the freight both ways. This offer will extend indefinitely to XA160's from the first units made to those shipped in September 2003. Just call Peter at (530) 367 3690 for arrangements.

Customers outside of the U.S. would want to contact their local dealer/distributor, but wait a week or so to allow us time to get them the proper information.

We apologize for the mishap. Like any other human endeavor, mistakes happen, but we feel the measure of a company is in its response to the customer, and as always, we do our best to make our customers happy.
Bomarc: Please clarify your position so that i and the rest of us may better understand where i went wrong.

Aboldor: Thanks for posting that link. My thoughts on Nelson's response are relatively mixed. While i had no doubt in my mind that they would stand behind their products if their was a problem, i still can't understand how ANY product that costs this much money could go ANYWHERE without a full bench check and QA being performed. At $18K, each unit should come with its' own individualized spec sheet. I guess that i'm expecting too much at this price level though. Sean
Onhwy61: That's basically what I've been saying all along regarding the amp itself (read my above posts). My 'complaint' (if you want to call it that - it's not like I would have been buying a pair of these tomorrow anyway, no matter what ;^) has mostly to do with what seems like a somewhat unrealistic and incomplete product *description*, given the amp's not-unexpected limitations in areas we both acknowledge as reasonable for its apparent design brief. I have no trouble, based on what I know so far and the company's history, in believing Fremer's conclusion that it's nonetheless a very fine-sounding product (and could maybe perform even better given optimally-matched speakers). In other words, the amp seems to me like a niche product (within the larger niche of products in its more exclusive price range), despite the image we commonly hold of large, heavy, costly solid-state monoblocks being that they should all drive 2-ohm pigs to arena volumes at 20Hz. I am defending the diverse approach as being fundamentally not silly or worthy of ridicule. I suspect the amp represents an honest engineering effort with good reasons behind it, and let the marketplace decide.
Sorry not to have read the thread,but to get back to the openning comment.I am seeing that the best quality is coming from specialty independant manfs. or modifiers. I have always held that getting best performance for the $$ is by getting units that can be modded from stock forms. The few designers I have spoken to argee.

These Cos. that are buying up Cos. are really taking things and increasing the bse price while taking quality parts out and subing them for inferior parts or taking the beef out of what was considerd hefy builds.

Harmon has laid waste to a number of good products. Revel,Lexicon and ML are suffering from inferior parts and quality issues from what I have been reading from the opinions of others.

Klipsch bought Aragon is taking good amps and downsizing the PS while saying they are increasing the quality.

On the uoside Digital amps might well be a good thing for audio. It might brig SOTA performance into the home without the need for outragous prices. That might take time,but I have heard good things from Panasonics new amps. I am not an admirer of Intergrateds or Recievers or the Japanese all in one market,but if what I am reading is true then it just might be a new revolution in Recievers that is coming,if they can oversome the trait of interference that has always plagued recievers.

I have not read the Pass review yet,but I did read N.Pass's response to it at Seems the unit was taken home then not rechecked by their lab before being sent out. He has taken steps to correct the mishap from happening again and will honor any unit to be checked out to verify it being OK. I would not like to spend that type of $$ for a prodt. that moght not be good.

Just a few observations.
What I had in mind when posting the link was that some response is better than no response at all. No, the post does not address all the problems. Yes, I definitely agree that the amps should be thoroughly checked before delivery, and as I said, at these prices, there should be no room for excuses. Anyway, apparently it's not the first time when a Pass amp's factory settings are out of whack. (see David Smith's review here). But no matter how hard anyone tries, mishaps will happen. So I say - let's give them the benefit of the doubt... for now. Let's see how - and how eficiently - they will address the QC problems.
Right on Bomarc. I think it's high time that the vast majority of audiophiles stand up and admit that they are not pursuing accuracy...rather they are pursuing their own "personal sound". There is nothing wrong with this and I am surely doing this as well.

There are many components that produce, what I find to be, a "pleasing" sound. These are not accurate. I find horns a little too harsh when played live. Therefore I've built a system that is very warm and, usually more pleasing to me. So I've spent tens of thousands of dollars more than the average person and have produced a less accurate system. It sounds bigger and fuller, has a much wider soundstage and certainly plays much louder. And it sure does look good. Sure, there are many nuances that can be heard that aren't heard in a mass-market stereo. But the opposite also applies. I just started using an ipod and the cheap earbuds reveal sounds in almost every single song that my stereo does not!

So, as someone who has played music for 22 years out of the 26 that I've walked this green earth let me be the first to stand up and say that I am not pursuing accuracy.
Sean as you know i respected your post, although my
brain spin when I read them, you remind me of Trent at
Van L, too high tech.I own the AH 4000 with upsampler,
with the audience power cord, I have not heard any cdplayer
as good as this player near the price,I thought the
jolida jd100 was better, with tsunami pc, but when I
found out about the audience the AH is much way better
than Jolida. IMS
Ultraviolet thats a good point, musicality and involving
system is the one Iam looking for, not accuracy, not
good measurement,I have read too many post here at Agon,
when they describe equipment sonic,and performance, they
will look for even little things, that doesnt matter,
I remember my friend got elated, hearing the guy coughing
on the cd jazz at the pawnshop,I know this guy is not
into jazz,I dont get it.Sometimes I wonder,If audiophile
likes to listen to the music at all, or just the equipment,
Lastly I dont believe the gear are getting worse.
Jayctoy: I am looking for "musical accuracy". This means that i want a system that is truthful to the sound of instruments and voices as heard live. In order to do this, you need high levels of accuracy, both in the equipment and in the recording. Obviously, there are compromises made in both of these areas, so one has to pick and choose what they are willing to accept and how they want to cope with such a situation.

As to being "too technical", i abhor both "clinical" sounding audio systems and systems that "sugar coat" everything. If i had to choose between one or the other, i would take the "sugar coated" system. The primary reason for this is that most recordings tend to be bright, lean and hard sounding. As such, i'd rather have a less revealing system than one that was un-naturally etched sounding. A system that was "highly detailed" to the point of being strident would only highlight the flaws mentioned previously in most mass produced recordings.

Quite honestly, i would venture to say that this is directly related to the resurgence of tube gear. Tubes tend to produce a fuller sound with less transient energy at high frequencies. This type of reproduction compliments / helps to hide the horrible qualities that many digital recordings and digital playback equipment tend to bring with them. Taming these flaws via a known colouration is therefore more pleasant than having one's ears bleed in the name of "accuracy".

As far as Trent from Van L goes, i have no idea who he is or was, so i don't know how to take that comment. I've always dealt with John, the owner, who is a truly nice guy. Sean
Sean thanks a lot,If you say Musical Accuracy Iam in it.
I did learn a lot on your explanation,Its more simple
and easy to understand.I think if you will do your
post like this, a lot of Agoners like me, who does not have
engineering background,or electronic background, we
will learn a lot from you.Of course its your choice.
My only humble request, with your permission only.
I also check in for musical accuracy! That's the Holy Grail, and what I strive for. Sean is correct in that many systems are either too analytical or too warm.

In my experience, it is hard to find an amplifier that will really not fall into either category. The closest I have found, in many regards is the OTL. They have a certain light and life that reminds me of real music. There is warmth, but it doesn't go too far as many tube amps do. They don't lack the soul of many solid state amps or try to go overboard in convincing that it can be warm like a tube amplifier. They also have speed and clarity that surpasses even most of the solid state I have encountered.

However, I have problems with OTL amps. Although the bass they have is extended, VERY fast, and tight, it's hard to power a big woofer with an OTL amp(unless it's 16 ohms - not too many of them around). And, a big woofer generates the kind of horsepower needed to do bass correctly. My OTL amp cannot grab hold of the woofer's voice coil and blow me back like a solid state or transformer coupled tube amp can. Using an autoformer helps somewhat, but then the OTL warmth and magic goes away.
Jayctoy: I try to speak in understandable terms, but to someone that is less technically minded, i'm sure a lot of it sounds like "Babylon" i.e. "babble-on". Then again, i do make a concerted effort to try and explain things that are more technical in nature, hence the lengths of some of my posts that "babble-on".

Trelja: Once again, i find that we are on the same page. I too like OTL's, but the majority of speakers that i prefer just don't work too well with them. On top of that, with the spl's that i like to be able to achieve, i would be eating up output tubes left and right. OTL tube amps can be great, if they match your speakers and listening preferences. Sean